Return of the wildlife

This entry is part 2 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
First Male Elephant Seal back on the Maiviken beaches
First Male Elephant Seal back on the Maiviken beaches

Just a quick blog to say that the wildlife is slowly but surely returning to the South Georgian shores. The first few male Elephant Seals are making themselves back at home on the beaches, awaiting the return of the females. Hopefully, we should have the first females very soon, followed by the first pups and that should kick off the big fights between males for harems!

Fur Seal porpoising in the shallows
Fur Seal porpoising in the shallows

Along with the Elephant Seals have come increased numbers of Antarctic Fur Seals. Although breeding won’t start for these guys for a few months, it’s great to see them again and see them looking so healthy.

Antarctic Tern in flight in front of the ship
Antarctic Tern in flight in front of the ship

Antarctic Terns are increasing every day with a roost beside base reaching numbers of 150+ in the last few days. Birds can constantly be heard courting and seen displaying.

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Friendly leopard seal making use of the ice which had flown into the cove

Our wintering residents are still here and I imagine will stick around in order to take advantage of the increased abundance of food! A peak of six leopard seals in a day vied for highlight of the month.

Gentoo penguins on maiviken beach
Gentoo penguins on Maiviken Beach

It’s not long now before the Gentoos will stop roosting close to the beaches and push on up to prospect their breeding colony for a year. With such a poor season observed last year, here’s hoping for better luck this time.

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R&R in front of base
Giant Petrels are back and building nests
Giant Petrels are back and building nests

Giant Petrels are also increasing in numbers with the first Northern Giant Petrel observed on a nest already. Other seabirds are also increasing in the bay with more and more cape petrels close to base and also the first returning white chins. Hopefully, we should be seeing our first skuas in the next few days.

Fur Seal shaking out his mane
Fur Seal shaking out his mane

Male fur seals are already beginning to act territorially, meaning that I need to keep alert whilst patrolling the beaches.

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Leopard seal trying to ignore the wind and snow
Another fur seal shaking it out
Another fur seal shaking it out
Elephant Seals are also back at Penguin River
Elephant Seals are also back at Penguin River

It’s great to see these southern giants back around base, dwarfing the comparatively tiny fur seals on the beaches. They use the proboscis on their noses to project their calls, meaning on a still night, you are able to hear their roars from miles away.

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Leopard seal hiding behind a snowdrift on base! Easy to miss in a white out
Gentoo Penguins fighting in the snow
Gentoo Penguins fighting in the snow

Despite all this incredible fauna, probably the most exciting event in the last few weeks has been the return of bird song to the islands with South Georgia Pipits making themselves heard throughout the coastal areas.

South Georgia pipits are mcuh more apprent now and have begun singing
South Georgia pipits are much more apparent now and have begun singing

Life’s A Boat

This entry is part 35 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey
Humpback whale
Humpback whale off the coast of South Georgia
My view for the next two weeks.
I may have swapped rooms but my new window view is just as stunning

As you may be aware from my previous post, I have exchanged my South Georgian life for life at sea for three weeks. I am working on board a krill fishing vessel, researching by-catch (which is minimal) and also making whale and seabird observations to inform future conservation decisions.

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Seemingly, I am here at a good time of year since within seconds of leaving Cumberland Bay, we were seeing the first spouts as whales blew all around us with the sun setting.

Whale sightings were immediate, once out of Cumberland Bay
Humpback whale at the surface in front of the South Georgian shores

As we set about fishing, sightings continued, predominantly of Humpbacks, which were obviously exploiting the rich masses of krill 200m beneath the surface. When you see a distant whale blow, it’s easy to forget what is lying beneath. These Humpbacks can measure 16m and weigh up to 36 tonnes.

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Characteristic showing of the humpback’s flukes prior to a deep dive

As the days have progressed, the sightings are getting better and better with several species seen so far. Fin, minke, southern right, sperm and orca (not seen by me!) were all spotted, as well as thousands of seabirds, seals and penguins.

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Giant Petrel off the side of the boat
Giant Petrel off the side of the boat

South Georgia was the hub of whaling in the not too recent past and estimates suggest that numbers of baleen whales reduced by 90% as a result of it. So it’s absolutely incredible to see such high densities of whales in these waters.

Too close to photograph
Almost too close to photograph

The most frequent bird sightings involve the petrel species, with South Georgia Diving, Kerguelen, Great Winged, Antarctic, Cape and Giant Petrels all present in various numbers. Both Southern Fulmers and Antarctic Terns are also abundant with the occasional Wandering Albatross sightings.

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Southern Fulmar in flight
Humpback whale right besides the ship
Humpback whale right beside the ship
Wandering Albatross over the sea
Wandering Albatross over the sea

Conditions on the whole have remained calm and clear, allowing good sightings throughout the trip. With the boats moving at very slow speeds, animals tend to pay little attention to the vessel, allowing for up close sightings.

Pair of humpbacks feeding at the surface
Pair of humpbacks feeding at the surface

Humpback whales migrate south for summer to feed on the krill rich numbers. These animals will be on their way north back to their breeding grounds, where they will breed in August time.

Seabirds and seals in the waves
Seabirds and seals in the waves
Humpback blow - note the white pectoral fins beneath the surface
Humpback blow – note the white pectoral fins beneath the surface

Although it is the wrong time of year, I have seen several humpbacks displaying, launching their magnificent bodies out of the water. One of these was close enough for me to capture on camera!

Displaying humpback
Displaying humpback
Diving Humpback
Diving Humpback

As mentioned before, the birdlife has been almost as spectacular as the marine mammals. See my previous blog (feeding frenzy) for more bird pictures

Young antarctic tern
Young antarctic tern

Macaroni Penguins – Rookery Bay

This entry is part 19 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

This blog has been a long time coming, many of the pictures you have probably already seen but it’s too good a trip not to write a blog about. As I have mentioned many times before, one of the perks of my job is that I get outdoors a lot and visit many peninsulas to carry out science.

Last month I was fortunate enough to visit the Barff peninsula, where I was needed to carry out maintenance on an SM2 for an Oxford University project. An SM2 is a sound meter which can be programmed to pick up specific frequencies of sound. We have a number of these around the island which have been set up to record the songs of South Georgia Pipits. This should hopefully allow the rate of recovery of South Georgian Pipits, post rat eradication, to be monitored.

South Georgian Pipit on the rocks
South Georgian Pipit on the rocks

Fortunately, the SM2 is located 50 metres from a rookery of Macaroni Penguins. Last time this colony was counted, there were approximately 7000 of them, so the colony is a substantial size. Once we had finished with the SM2, we were able to head down to the shoreline and watch the Macaroni Penguins come in from their fishing trips. It is absolutely incredible to watch these guys porpoising through the water and surfing their way up the rocks.

Rookery Bay penguin colony located adjacent to the SM2 recorder
Rookery Bay penguin colony located adjacent to the SM2 recorder
A close up of a very dapper looking Macaroni Penguin
A close up of a very dapper looking Macaroni Penguin

Once they have surfed the white water ashore, you start to observe their aggression. They are very territorial and are definitely suffering from a bit of “little man’s syndrome”. Any excuse possible and they will be pecking, chasing and pushing each other.

Macaroni penguins rugby tackling each other on the rocks
Macaroni penguins rugby tackling each other on the rocks
Macaroni penguin, tiptoeing around the white water
Macaroni penguin, tiptoeing around the white water
Macaroni Penguin trying to make it out of the surf before the next wave hits
Macaroni Penguin trying to make it out of the surf before the next wave hits
Macaroni Penguin being thrown up the rocks by the waves
Macaroni Penguin being thrown up the rocks by the waves

Considering their small size, it is astonishing watching these guys making the small commute up to the colony. Once they have washed the salt off themselves, they ‘fly’ up the rocks, jumping over crevices and scrambling through the tussock.

Surfs Up - Macaroni Penguin, having a stretch before heading up to the colony
Surfs Up – Macaroni Penguin, having a stretch before heading up to the colony
Macaroni Penguin jumping into a rockpool for a rinse
Macaroni Penguin jumping into a rockpool for a rinse
Macaroni Penguins playing and washing in the water
Macaroni Penguins playing and washing in the water
Macaroni Penguin making a more graceful entrance to the water
Macaroni Penguin making a more graceful entrance to the water
Macaroni Penguin scrambling over rocks to get to the colony
Macaroni Penguin scrambling over rocks to get to the colony

Once up the hill, the Macaronis have to safely navigate their way through the colonies, avoiding the angry territorial swipes and pecks of their neighbours, to their nest. Once alongside, their mate couples perform an incredible display, simultaneously dancing and calling to each other!

Displaying Macaroni Penguins
Displaying Macaroni Penguins

It’s not all easy nature spotting though as the walk back to the boating pick-up point was a good 3 hours hiking over deep snow and high mountain passes. Visibility, unfortunately, wasn’t great as a result of low cloud. However, we were accompanied for much of the route by Antarctic Terns commuting back from fishing trips. I have these birds to thank for making me feel so at home from day one here. Hearing their courting calls and being mobbed from the sky took me right back to the Farne Islands and living within the Arctic Tern colony there. Even the acrid smell of seabird colonies gives me a slightly homely feel!

Antarctic tern commuting over the mountain pass
Antarctic tern commuting over the mountain pass

 

 

Another Busy Week… a seal rescue, ‘blondies’ and chicks!

This entry is part 12 of 47 in the series British Antarctic Survey

I was told that spring was going to be full on and this last 10 days has been no exception. On top of the 14km round trip to Maiviken every other day in order to take pictures, I have also visited the Macaroni Penguin colony at Rookery to do some work with South Georgian Pipits (a whole other blog post), rescued a young elephant seal, monitored more Giant Petrels and found the first Penguin Chicks and a ‘blondie’

Macaroni penguin at Rooker Point making standing up look difficult!
Macaroni penguin at Rookery Point making standing up look difficult!

As higher predator biologist, any seal entanglements or injuries are my responsibility to deal with. So when a couple of the museum staff ventured upon an elephant seal pup that had managed to get stuck under a collapsed bank, I was radioed. I got sent out with a shovel and two other members of the team to try and find and rescue this guy! He had a few scrapes and cuts but most disturbing was the smell. He had obviously been stuck there a few days, with nowhere to go to the toilet, so when we finally manoeuvred him out from beneath the rocks, the release of smell was quite spectacular.

An elephant seal we managed to free from the collapsed bank at Penguin River
An elephant seal we managed to free from the collapsed bank at Penguin River

Continuing on the seal front, we have had a number of very rare visitors to Maivikien beaches this year. Within the Antarctic Fur Seal population, certain individuals have a recessive gene trait which results in a change in their fur colour. Studies at Bird Island suggest that approximately 1 in 800 seals are ‘blondies’. Currently, we have 2 adult males (which in the water you can almost mistake for a polar bear if you squint and are wearing very bad glasses), one adult female and a pup. I am not sure what other recessive genes the pup was born with, but the last time I saw it, it had taken over a Giant Petrel nest and started incubating the egg!

Rare pale morph adult male fur seal taking a dip
Rare pale morph adult male fur seal taking a dip
Blondie, Antarctic fur seal sitting on a giant petrel egg
Pretty cute…. A Blondie, Antarctic fur seal sitting on a giant petrel egg

The Gentoo Penguins are having a poor year at the moment. Numbers at egg census, which was completed a few weeks back, were down from last year. And further to this, their new nesting site is located adjacent to a pair of Brown Skuas, which, with incredible intelligence and teamwork has resulted in a worryingly large egg graveyard. But it’s not all been bad news… on the 3rd we discovered a number of Gentoos with small chicks and a further check on the 10th showed these guys to have grown at an incredible rate. These guys will eventually form creches at about a month old and will finally become independent of their parents after 3 months.

Brown skua patrolling the Gentoo penguin colony
Brown skua patrolling the Gentoo penguin colony in the snow
Young Gentoo Penguin begging for food
Young Gentoo Penguin begging for food

With spring continuing here, the breeding season for most of our native inhabitants is also in full swing. Large numbers of pintail ducklings are filling the tussock grass King Penguins are displaying, Brown Skuas are on eggs, South Georgian Pipits are collecting food for chicks, and the Antarctic Terns are starting to fledge. So much wildlife to take in and so many pictures to take!

Hopefully the first of many Antarctic Tern fledglings at King Edward Point
Hopefully the first of many Antarctic Tern fledglings at King Edward Point